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Pontiac Brothers – “Fiesta en la Biblioteca”

October 29, 2011 4 comments

The Pontiac Brothers - "Fiesta en la Biblioteca"

Have you ever been to a concert that you will never forget? One of my unforgettable shows was the Pontiac Brothers’ visit to the Uptown Lounge in Athens, Georgia on the “Fiesta en la Biblioteca” tour in either late 1986 or early 1987. Why was it so memorable? Because Matt Simon, the Brothers’ singer, was so outrageously and over-the-top drunk that he passed out on stage after three or four songs. The guitarist, Ward Dotson (of Gun Club fame), took over the vocal duties while Mr. Simon took a break. The singer woke up after a half dozen songs, pulled down his pants, and belted out a blazing cover of AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds.” After channeling his best Bon Scott, Simon passed out for good and the show was over.

It was a memorable but disappointing evening. I was disappointed because I was a huge Pontiac Brothers fan, and I had literally worn the grooves out of my copy of “Fiesta en la Biblioteca.” The album has been out of print for a long time so I haven’t heard it in twenty years or longer. I just recently found it on Spotify and wondered how it held up.

Los Bros Pontiac were always described as a amalgamation of the Replacements and late 1960s-vintage Rolling Stones. That’s a bit generous; the Pontiac Brothers’ songwriting skills never reached the level of craftsmanship that characterized Jagger and Richard’s collaborations or Paul Westerberg’s songs. The closest the Brothers came was “Be Married Song,” a cynical masterpiece that would have slotted right in on “Beggars Banquet.”

I am happy to report that “Fiesta en la Biblioteca” is delightfully unfocused. It veers from proto-Americana songs like “She Knows It,” which sounds a bit like Green on Red, to the 70s stadium rock anthem, “She Likes to Rock,” which trots out Gary Glitter licks long before Glitter’s songs were ubiquitous at sporting events. The weirdest moment on the album is the cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Brown-Eyed Women.” It weird because I expected The Pontiac Brothers to put their own stamp on the song – to rave it up, to rock it and punk it up. What we get instead is a straight up cover of it. And even though Jerry Garcia couldn’t sing his way out of a paper bag, I am sad report that Matt Simon isn’t even in Jerry’s league on this one.

Overall, though, “Fiesta en la Biblioteca” holds up well. It is a straight up rock album – something of a rarity in the mid-1980s. Don’t forget about all the diverse styles that constituted “alternative” music in 1985-1986 – the genre consisted of everything from REM, the Cramps and Husker Du to Black Flag and Sonic Youth. It was hard to find just a regular kick ass rock n’ roll band. That was the reason I wore the grooves out of this album.

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The Sensational Guitars of Dan and Dale – “Batman and Robin”

Sensational Guitars of Dan and Dale - "Batman and Robin" (1966)

You aren’t going to believe this one. In 1966 kids were going wild over ABC’s “Batman” television show. A New Jersey toy company wanted to cash in on the craze and rip off kids by releasing an album called “Batman and Robin.” This slab of vinyl had nothing to do with the t.v. show even though it was chock full of tunes like “The Penguin Chase,” “Robin’s Theme,” “Batmobile Wheels,” “Flight of the Batman” and “The Bat Cave.”

Here is the unbelievable part: Producer Tom Wilson hired Sun Ra and several members of his immortal Arkestra (including supposedly John Gilmore, Marshall Allen and Pat Patrick) to collaborate with members of the New York-based rock and blues band, The Blues Project (best known as Al Kooper’s band even though he wasn’t an original member) and record the sides as The Sensational Guitars of Dan and Dale. Why is this unbelievable? Because Sun Ra,  the otherworldly jazz composer, band leader and musician, was better known for bringing Outer Space and big band-tinged compositions into the experimental frenzy and fun of free jazz.

The Sensational Guitars of Dan and Dale – “Batman Theme

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y-mDUzqPLRU

The album features twelve songs – ten instrumentals and two songs with vocals. It’s obvious that this was a quickie – something they churned out in a day or two. The rfiffs are simple and repetitive and many of the tunes consist of the Arkestra horns turning out recycled classical melodies (like Tchaikovsky’s “Fifth Symphony,” Prokofiev and Chopin) so they wouldn’t have to pay licensing fees.

“Batman and Robin” features pretty traditional instrumentation, especially for a Sun Ra session, of organ, guitar, bass, drums and horns. The album is pretty dang groovy actually. Because it is a record for kids, you won’t find any atonal experiments or any of Sun Ra’s infamous counter melodies layered over big band-like melodies here. It actually sounds like a Southern R&B instrumental combo in the vein as Booker T. & the MGs. Even though the riffs are simple, there is a surprisingly joyful aspect to the playing. It’s obvious they had fun at the sessions. It is also obvious that Sun Ra did in fact play on part of the album as you can tell by the organ blast at the beginning of the album’s first song, “Batman Theme.”

The real star of the record is the uncredited guitar player – it could be The Blues Project’s Danny Kalb or it might not be him. The “Sensational Guitars” is actually it pretty apt title because I imagine the album sounds like what would happen if Steve Cropper was given free reign to rip fractured, Yardbirds-like solos over every one of Booker T.’s song.

The verdict: An interesting and unexpected addition to the already eclectic Sun Ra catalog.

A View from the Other Side: Brother Claude Ely – “Satan Get Back!”

October 8, 2011 1 comment

Brother Claude Ely - "Satan Get Back!"

Pitch Black Brigade usually trucks and traffics in the dark side of music, heaviness and the metals. Today, though, in the interest of providing equal time, it’s time to shine a light and hear from to the other side, as it were. So today we are going to consider Brother Claude Ely’s fine gospel platter, “Satan Get Back!” (Ace Records, 2011).

Let’s get this straight at the start – I have little patience for the Satanic stuff in black metal, as I have written before. Black metal fixation with Beelzebub isn’t sinister – it’s stupid. For example, the band Gorgoroth has a song called “Procreating Satan.” Now, I can’t tell from the title or the lyrics what the song is about but if it is about “procreating” the Dark One then it should be titled, “Doing Satan’s Mom.” At best, black metal’s subject matter is sophomoric and stupid and at its worst it reeks of older dudes that know dawning corpse paint and playing paens to darkness is a cheap way to make a depressing and cynical living. Enough about the darkness, now we go towards the light.

I feel like singing today – don’t feel much like preaching

Claude Ely grew up amongst the hollers (hollows) and hills of southwestern Virginia. He was called to preach full time in 1949. Ely preached in a Holiness church. Now why is that important? It’s important because ministers and congregations at Holiness churches “get happy.” The services are raucous, emotional and passionate. Other denominations disparagingly called them “Holy Rollers.”

“Satan Get Back!” is a compilation of three separate recordings that were initially released by the mighty Cincinnati-based King Records (home to a diverse and powerful roster that included James Brown, the Stanley Brothers, and Charlie Feathers). The first seventeen songs were recorded live at two separate revivals held in front of the Letcher County Courthouse in Whitesburg, Kentucky in 1953 and 1954. The last eight songs come from a 1962 studio session.

The revival recordings are frantic; they crackle with a live wire-like intensity – just what you would expect from a tent meeting. Here is a taste of it – make sure you stick around for the last two minutes of preaching:

Brother Claude Ely – “I’m Crying Holy unto the Lord

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQ7qGlrcanE

As you can tell, the best part of the revival recordings on “Satan Get Back!” is Ely’s furious and propulsive guitar playing. Scotty Moore and Carl Perkins can’t touch him and his rhythmic technique (and that’s saying a lot because I think Scotty Moore hung the blue moon of Kentucky). Ely is known as the “Gospel Ranger,” but I am convinced that we should change his nickname to the “Rockabilly Ranger” because of his intense guitar work. His rhythm work is so propulsive that no matter which gospel gem he plays the tempo is almost exactly the same. And after a while, like most black metal songs, the revival songs begin to blur together because they are characterized by the same things – Ely’s chugging guitar, his powerful but unsubtle voice, and the backup singers answering his calls and cries.

The studio songs couldn’t be more different than the material from the revival. For starters they feature a traditional hillbilly band backing up Brother Claude.

Brother Claude Ely – “You Took the Wrong Road Again

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQ4BDp3fD_M

The studio sides are sedate; they lack the energy and the conviction of the live material. The songs also have a mournful quality that contrasts sharply with the exuberance of the revival. Even though the studio studio stuff was better recorded and more professionally played, the songs felt lifeless after 40 minutes of the live material.

The verdict: Brother Claude puts a smackdown on Satan.

Light: 1

Darkness: 0